A new book by David Zweig looks at people for whom work is its own reward. The New Republic’s Alice Robb interviews Zweig:
Despite an incredible range of careers, there are three traits they all seem to share. The first is an ambivalence toward recognition. They don’t seek attention the way most of us do. The second trait is that they tend to be meticulous. The chapter on meticulousness focuses on a man named David Apel, who is a perfumer. This guy has created some of the top-selling fragrances in the world, for people like Calvin Klein and Tom Ford. He’s really an artist: He creates something from nothing, and he has to translate very abstract concepts. If a client says, “I want this to smell like a cloud,” he has to figure out what they’re saying. He has this incredible knowledge of science and chemistry; these fragrances have hundreds of ingredients, and the amount of each ingredient can go down to fraction of a gram. He has these spreadsheets that go on and on and on. He’s extraordinarily meticulous. The third trait is that they tend to savor responsibility. I argue that many of us try to avoid responsibility if we can, but these people want to take it on, even if they don’t get any credit for it. There’s a fascinating story about the engineers on one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early buildings. They knew that his designs weren’t safe, but he was notoriously stubborn, and they knew he wouldn’t listen to them. They secretly went in and reinforced parts of the building while it was being built. They wanted to take on this responsibility, knowing that publicly they could never talk about it, because they just cared so deeply about their work. We tend to associate responsibility with the person at the top of the pyramid, or the most noticeable person, but responsibility doesn’t necessarily have to do with being seen.
An odd premise for a book. The overwhelming majority of people aren’t famous. The guy who fixes the brakes on your car doesn’t have a fan page on Facebook. And I recently exchanged emails with an intelligent, successful woman who had no idea what a “tweet” is.